Connect with us

Culture

What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

Published

on

What's it like to play Rafael Nadal on clay? We asked the players

This article is part of the launch of extended tennis coverage on The Athletic, which will go beyond the baseline to bring you the biggest stories on and off the court. To follow the tennis vertical, click here.

“He makes you suffer. First he takes your legs, then your mind.”

Casper Ruud is describing what it’s like facing Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier at Roland Garros: the court where Nadal has won 14 French Open titles. Ruud was the beaten finalist for the most recent of those triumphs, in 2022. When asked to relive the experience of facing Nadal there, his eyes widen and he lets out a small laugh.

This was a pretty typical reaction of the dozen-or-so players The Athletic spoke to in an attempt to understand exactly what it’s like playing Nadal on clay — a surface on which he has a 90.9 per cent winning record over a career that has spanned more than two decades. He has won 479 matches on clay, losing just 48.

At Roland Garros, that figure is a ludicrous 97.4 per cent. Played 115, won 112, lost three.

Advertisement

The players we heard from, including world No 1 Novak Djokovic, almost unanimously described playing Nadal on clay as “the toughest test in tennis”. Others, like Ruud, went as far as saying it was the toughest test in any sport. “He is the ultimate clay-court player,” says Gael Monfils, the one-time world No 6, who has been beaten by Nadal in all six of their meetings on the surface.


Nadal’s aura on clay is unlike any other in the game (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Some players don’t even think it’s real. “It’s a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” is the view of Karen Khachanov, a two-time French Open quarter-finalist.

Ruud’s words call to mind Andy Roddick’s famous “first your legs, then your soul” description of Novak Djokovic, so what exactly makes playing Nadal specifically so terrifying?

From the size of the Chatrier court and the feeling that it’s impossible to get the ball past him, to the heaviness of his ball, to the mental torture he is able to exert, those who have faced him explain exactly what it’s like playing Rafael Nadal on clay.

Advertisement
go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Why you should be excited about this year’s tennis clay court swing


Let’s start with the ultimate, ultimate test — playing Nadal on Chatrier. Since winning his first French Open in 2005 as a 19-year-old, this has become his court. He knows its dimensions perfectly; he knows how the ball will bounce in any spot; he knows how to inflict the maximum amount of damage on his opponents. Sometimes a player and a court become so intertwined that it feels as though the venue were made for them. Roger Federer and Centre Court, Serena Williams and Arthur Ashe, Djokovic and the Rod Laver Arena.

First up, the man who has inflicted two-thirds of his defeats on the court and who has played him there more (10 times) than anyone else — Djokovic.

“The court is bigger,” he says. “There is more space, which affects visually the play a lot and the feeling of the player on the court. He likes to stand quite far back to return. Sometimes when he’s really in the zone and in the groove, not making many errors, you feel like he’s impenetrable. He’s like a wall.

“It’s really a paramount challenge to play him in Roland Garros. He’s an incredible athlete. The tenacity and intensity he brings on the court, particularly there, is something that was very rarely seen I think in the history of this sport.”

Advertisement

Nadal and Djokovic duel at the net during the 2022 French Open quarter-final (Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

“It’s like Novak said, winners don’t come easy against him on Chatrier,” adds Ruud, who is a clay-court specialist and has been ranked as high as No 2, but was thumped in straight sets in that Roland Garros final two years ago. “He reads the game so well, as well as him being one of the best movers of all time.”

To reach that final, Nadal beat Alexander Zverev in the semi-final. In a very strange match with lots of breaks, Zverev had to retire with an unfortunate ankle injury in the second set while trailing 6-7, 6-6. He had somehow failed to win the first set, despite holding four consecutive set points, and the way he talks about it now underlines how much the match has stayed with him. The way he describes Nadal conjures up the image of trying to escape from the Terminator in the classic Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

“He becomes different,” says Zverev, who has lost five of his six matches against Nadal on clay. “His ball all of a sudden becomes a few kilometres an hour faster. His footwork and foot speed become a lot faster.

“It’s more difficult to hit a winner, especially on Philippe Chatrier, which is a massive court, so he has a lot more space. It is very difficult. It’s probably the biggest challenge in tennis playing Nadal on that court.

“You have a feeling that you just can’t put him away. I think the first set that I played against him (in that 2022 semi-final) basically describes it to perfection. I mean, I won that set I don’t know how many times against any other player and I still somehow managed to lose it in the tie-break.

Advertisement

“I was up 6-2 in the tie-break. He aced me I think for the first time in the entire match. Then he hit one of the most ridiculous passing shots (skip to 9:09 below) I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

 

“Somehow you feel like you’re winning, but then somehow you end up not. It’s just something you only feel against him on that specific court.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Alexander Zverev keeps winning. But nobody wants to talk about his domestic abuse trial

Sebastian Korda, America’s world No 28, won just four games when he faced Nadal on Chatrier four years ago, losing 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 in a fourth-round shellacking. He feels Nadal’s comfort and experience on the court adds to the feeling for opponents that no situation could unsettle him there.

Advertisement

“He’s as comfortable as someone can be on a tennis court and once someone gets comfortable on a court, it becomes extremely difficult to play them,” Korda says.

“He’s been through pretty much every situation on that court so plays as free as anyone can on a court.

“You feel like you can’t get the ball past him.”


Nadal rockets a forehand on his way to beating Korda (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Khachanov, the big-hitting Russian world No 17, was thumped by Nadal 6-3, 6-2 in their only meeting on clay — in Monte Carlo six years ago.

“It was a bit like playing against someone on a PlayStation because every ball comes back,” he says. “Sometimes you have trouble winning one point. And you can feel like you do everything right and you don’t win the point.

Advertisement

“You serve well and open the angle, the ball comes back. That’s why he’s unique and the best ever to play on that surface.”

The feeling that whatever you do isn’t enough ties into Ruud’s description that “first he takes your legs and then your mind”.


There’s worrying about what to do when you’re hitting the ball. There’s the growing sense that whatever you do, it won’t be enough.

Then there’s the fact that for every ball you hit, Nadal’s ball is about to come for you.

Advertisement

His ball on clay is known to be so full of spin that players struggle to comprehend it until they experience it first-hand. This can be quantified to some extent by looking at the extremely high revolutions per minute on Nadal’s shots, especially the forehand, but even that doesn’t fully do it justice, his opponents say.


Nadal and Ruud during their 2022 meeting (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“His ball? It’s… heavy,” says Ruud, who was the French Open runner-up again last year. “And I think if you haven’t played tennis yourself it’s maybe hard to know what heavy means. I guess it’s the spin and rotation of his ball. The more RPMs he has on his ball, the quicker it will bounce up towards you. And when the ball bounces up at you, the more RPMs it has, the heavier it comes up at you compared to a ball that’s coming at you really flat.

“He has mastered that more than anyone else.”

World No 55 Miomir Kecmanovic lost to Nadal in straight sets in Madrid a couple of years ago and says: “His ball was different. Different in the way you know it’s Rafa behind the ball. Sometimes even if it’s not as good you still feel the pressure because you know it’s him. It’s completely different when you play him.”

Khachanov says it’s the variety of Nadal’s ball when playing him on clay that really struck him. “It’s always different,” Khachanov says. “He finds different angles, different trajectories, he always pushes you back when he opens the court. He has so much variety and the ball speed. So whenever he wants to be aggressive, he goes aggressive, and if he wants to be more defensive, he can take a step back. It’s like chess tennis — with the pieces, the shots he has in his arsenal. He is always trying to make you have trouble.”

Advertisement

  • If you’d like to follow our fantastic tennis coverage, please click here.

Such a kind person off the court, there’s no doubt that Nadal has a sadistic streak on it. He seeks out opponents’ weaknesses and exploits them mercilessly — especially on clay, where the high bounces suit the violent topspin he puts on the ball. Roger Federer could be forgiven for still having nightmares about those French Open finals when Nadal would loop topspin forehands to force him to hit one-handed backhands from shoulder height again and again.


Nadal used his forehand to dismantle Federer, out of shot, on clay (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The punishment was so severe that Federer eventually remodelled the entire shot.

Grigor Dimitrov, the world No 10 and three-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, is another gifted shotmaker with a single-handed backhand. He has faced Nadal six times on clay and lost all six meetings — winning just one set in the process.

He recalls Nadal making his life as awkward as possible. “It was no fun. No fun at all,” Dimitrov says.

“I played him at his absolute peak on clay and how can I explain? It’s just very uncomfortable. It’s very difficult for a one-hander to play him on any surface, but clay especially. The direction on the ball is very different. You have to move a bit extra. You can’t make any cheap mistakes. Overall there’s so little margin for error and then if you can’t put him in an uncomfortable position, there’s not a lot you can do.”


Nadal sliding in Monte Carlo, a tournament he was won 11 times (Neal Simpson/PA Images via Getty Images)

One of Nadal’s characteristics is that he never takes things for granted. No matter the opponent or the event, he will always show every match the utmost respect. Part of that is properly researching his opponents and knowing how to exploit any holes in their game.

Advertisement

That was the impression that Zizou Bergs, the world No 101, had when he was beaten by Nadal in Rome two weeks ago. “He was hitting such a high ball with lots of spin,” Bergs says. “Playing my weaknesses. You can tell his team did their homework on me, on what I don’t like.

“The intensity he can give sometimes with his forehand and backhand, it’s brutal.”

The feeling of being put under relentless pressure is draining and eventually, it becomes overwhelming. “It’s difficult physically, tactically to handle his speed, his angle, the way he puts you under pressure,” says Monfils.


Nadal beat Monfils in the 2016 Monte Carlo final (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Corentin Moutet, the world No 79, played Nadal at the French Open two years ago. He shakes his head as he remembers trying to reconcile the fact he felt he gave a good account of himself but still lost in straight sets. “I played well that day,” he says. “And left the court thinking I’ve played a really good level here but it’s still not enough.”


One of the biggest challenges about playing Nadal on clay is the mental aspect. Trying to go into the match not fearing what is about to come.

Advertisement

And playing Nadal on Chatrier can do strange things to people. Ahead of their first-round match at Roland Garros five years ago, the German player Yannick Hanfmann was so frazzled that after the customary photo at the net, he stuck his hand out to Nadal as if it was the end of the match. A slightly bemused Nadal didn’t leave him hanging and politely shook it.

“That was weird. I don’t know what I was doing, to be honest. I was a bit out of it there,” Hanfmann said afterwards. “I saw him shaking this kid’s hand and the ref’s hand and I then stuck out my hand. I don’t know why.”

This is an extreme example, but there’s no denying that players struggle not to be overawed by the prospect of facing Nadal on clay.


Red clay swirling round him feels like his natural state (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

“I think the fear shouldn’t be a factor,” Dimitrov says. “But the way certain players are, and him on clay, with a 97 per cent winning percentage, it’s already difficult enough. But I think the mindset is really important. You have to really believe that you can play well enough to have a chance.”

As time has gone on, there’s also the challenge that many players who face Nadal grew up idolising him. How do you switch off the part of your brain that is so full of admiration for him and listen only to the one that tells you you need to go and, metaphorically speaking, kick the living daylights out of him?

Advertisement

“It’s about being out there, having tonnes of respect for Rafael Nadal, but also seeing him as your opponent you want to beat and not just want to play,” says Bergs, who led Nadal by a set in Rome before succumbing in three.

“Sometimes you lose because you don’t really believe.”

Ruud was one of the players who grew up with Nadal as their childhood hero and then trained at the Spaniard’s academy. There was a feeling that he was overawed by facing Nadal in their final two years ago, which ended with a one-sided 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 scoreline and was happy enough just to be there.


Nadal consoles Ruud in 2022 (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“Of course, I wish I could make the match closer and all these things,” he said afterwards. “But at the end of the day, I can hopefully one day tell my grandkids that I played Rafa on Chatrier in the final.

“I’m probably going to enjoy this moment for a long time.”

Advertisement

Korda had a similar situation when he faced Nadal at Roland Garros in 2020, describing him as his “idol” in the lead-up to the match and having named the family cat after him growing up. Korda admits it was strange playing him in Paris having watched thousands of his matches growing up. “He was my favourite player, so nothing really surprised me,” Korda says. “But it still felt pretty strange seeing him on the other side of the net.”

Even older, more experienced players, confess that at times they had to grapple with the feeling of being honoured to share the Chatrier court with Nadal.

Fabio Fognini, 36 now, was a top-10 player and clay-court specialist. He has played Nadal eight times on clay, winning three of those meetings – including the most recent one, a 6-4, 6-2 hiding in Monte Carlo five years ago.

But he admits that during their one meeting at Roland Garros, he was too happy just to be there. Nadal won the match — a third-round contest in 2013 – 7-6, 6-4, 6-4. “I’m happy I was one of the 1,000 players who got to play at the same time as them,” he says. “Being in the second week of a grand slam was a party for me.

“I played with all three and Andy. I played Rafa at Roland Garros, Roger at Wimbledon, Nole (Djokovic) in Australia, Andy at Wimbledon. They were all incredibly tough.”

Advertisement

As we head towards Roland Garros, where 37-year-old Nadal is battling injury to try to compete at one last French Open, it feels as though we’ve come full circle.

Nadal’s biggest opponent since his 14th title two years ago has been his creaking body. He has not competed at Roland Garros since, nor at any Grand Slam since January 2023.

Nadal finally has some insight into what his opponents have faced all these years. The doubts and fears that consume them. How tough has that been, suddenly having to manage your vulnerability? “Yeah, it’s tough,” he told The Athletic in Rome two weeks ago, where he exited the Italian Open early to Hubert Hurkacz. “Because I have to do the things very step by step, trying to make small improvements day by day.


Nadal during his defeat in Rome this year (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“I need to try to play at my hundred per cent. It’s not easy because I need to lose a little bit of fear that I have in some shots, for example.”

Beating Nadal at Roland Garros has for so long been the toughest task in tennis, possibly any sport. But in his return from injury over the past month or so, Nadal’s physical issues have meant he is nowhere near as formidable on the surface as he once was.

Advertisement

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only person who has properly got the better of Nadal on clay is, well, Rafael Nadal.

(Top photos: Left and right: Mike Hewitt; centre: Mateo Villalba/Getty Images; design: Dan Goldfarb )

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Culture

The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

Published

on

The lesson of Scottie Scheffler at this U.S. Open, from the man who taught him

PINEHURST, N.C. — Randy Smith saw something that needed fixing, so he went about fixing it. It’s what he does. He pulled a piece of paper out of his desk at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas and scribbled down his idea. A line here. A line there. All the details. He folded it up, walked across the club and handed it to his student.

“This,” Smith said, “will work.”

Tom Landry took the paper.

The Dallas Cowboys coach eyed Smith, then looked down at a page of Xs moving this way and Os moving that way. The key, Smith explained, was putting Roger Staubach into shotgun play-action and allowing Drew Pearson to operate in space. Pure genius, in 1976, at least.

Landry, a Royal Oaks member, studied the play for about a minute. “Randy, I absolutely love it,” he finally said. Smith, then a 27-year-old golf pro and teaching instructor, nodded.

Advertisement

“Star-right 47,” Landry said.

“What?” Smith asked.

“We already run it,” Landry said. “Star-right 47. That’s the play.”

Turns out, Smith’s design already existed, but with a different pre-snap motion. Nonetheless, the young golf coach from Odessa proved he had an eye for how to play, how to design Xs better than Os, and how to scheme up a win.

Fifty years later, nothing is different, except Smith is now coach and confidant to the current greatest player in professional golf.

Advertisement

Randy Smith, left, has been working with Scottie Scheffler for more than 20 years. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Smith is the genius who told young Scottie Scheffler it was OK to let those feet fly; the visionary who knew a gift when he saw it. He first met a 7-year-old Scheffler at Royal Oaks around 2004. What was supposed to be a 10-minute youth lesson turned into an hour and 40 minutes. Smith, hand on chin, unblinking, only interjected here and there. “Can you try … yep.” “And how about … yep.” Smith knew immediately that Scheffler was one of one. He had not seen anything like him since a boy named Justin Leonard showed up on the driving range nearly 25 years earlier. Scheffler was somehow better.

And now, in 2024, Scheffler is the best. The hottest player in golf. Winner in five of his last eight events. A visitor from another planet. The 27-year-old can make it six wins in his last nine with a win at Pinehurst this week, where he’s trying for his third career major and first U.S. Open championship. A victory feels oddly inevitable. Scheffler is playing so well, so often, that fellow players are seemingly content to acknowledge their own inadequacies.

“He is the gold standard right now,” Bryson DeChambeau said Tuesday, “and we’re all looking up to him going, ‘All right, how do we get to that level?’”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

U.S. Open Big Board: After Scottie Scheffler, how does the field stack up at Pinehurst?

It won’t be easy, in part, because no one else out here has been hard-wired by the hands of Randy Smith. The coach is, in Scheffler’s words, “a savant,” and they are now two decades into a lesson that’s proving to have some staying power. It’s all worked because it’s never felt like work.

Advertisement

“Randy has always been really good at not overthinking things,” Scheffler says.

Which might sound simple, yet is anything but.

Now 72, Smith walked along Pinehurst No. 2’s back nine on Tuesday trying to explain what gets so often confused in golf — that once a player has the basics down, their swing must be their own creation, not someone else’s. This is why, while recent generations of players were told the same four misguided words — “Keep your head down.” — Smith told his young players the opposite.

“The head’s gotta move, man,” Smith said, stressing hard. “That’d be like telling a basketball player to keep his eye on the ball during a free throw.”

Smith still spends more than half of his time at Royal Oaks working with kids and when he does, he first wants to see good contact. Then a good grip. Then a reasonable ability to aim the body at the target. Then comes the interesting part. “You see if they can create.” Instead of tweaking the form, Smith wants to see what’s in the instincts. He hands the player a 7-iron and asks, “How would you make the ball fly really high? How about really low?” He wants to see imagination before imitation.

Advertisement

“You know, the body moves in response to action,” Smith said. “Most people say, ‘You have to make the body do this to create this and this.’ That’s bulls—.”

Smith picked up an imaginary baseball.

“I’m gonna throw this ball right at Scottie’s ass,” he said, pointing across the green at Scheffler.

Smith shifted his hips, cocked his arm and made a throwing motion.

“See, there were 42 things going on to make that motion,” he went on. “No one told me to shift my weight into my hip or use 30 degrees of knee bend or tilt my shoulders to the angle or the throw or … ”

Advertisement

The point: A swing need to be a product of instincts and action. This is how Smith sees the game and keeps kids interested in playing. Then, little by little, “I sneak up on ’em with the technique stuff.”


Scheffler has won five tournaments in 2024, including last week’s Memorial Tournament. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

When Smith is dealing a player who’s struggling, he’ll take him or her out to the course, stick ‘em behind a tree in a fairway, point to a green in the distance and say, “You gotta slice this sucker 40 yards to get to that target. Figure it out.” Lo and behold, the student stops thinking and instead creates a swing to shape the shot.

“But if they’re out there 170 yards, middle of the fairway, staring at the pin, they’re thinking about all kinds of other stuff,” Smith said. “You gotta get that out of there.”

No wonder Scheffler swings how he swings, thinks how he thinks. His game was shaped by Occam’s razor.

Perhaps that’s the secret to what is, in golf parlance, a heater, turning into something much bigger. Scheffler is turning into this era’s greatest player with a recipe that can seemingly fit on a single page. All the fixes are uncomplicated. All the solutions are straightforward. In April, at the Masters, when Scheffler felt he escaped the first round with a 66 despite a swing that “felt like I was using all hands,” he spent five minutes with Smith on the driving range.

Advertisement

“He gave me a little tip with my grip,” Scheffler said Tuesday. “I hit a couple shots, felt exactly what I needed to feel. Then it was over, from there.”

Scheffler won by four shots.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Scottie Scheffler’s secret: How a ‘venomous’ trash talker became the best golfer in the world

Now it’s the U.S. Open, where Smith is by Scheffler’s side, like usual, and keeping everything simple, like usual. On a week that should present extreme tests and stressful shotmaking, such a disposition feels like a cheat code. When Scheffler inevitably paints a masterpiece one of these days, and builds his lead, and looks like he’s playing a different game than everyone else, it’ll be worth remembering that nothing is by accident.

Walking around Tuesday, Smith studied Pinehurst’s rolling fairways and turtleback greens. The old coach was drawing up some Xs and Os.

Advertisement

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent is here,” Smith said, pointing to his left, “There,” he said point to his right, “What shots to hit and where. How about here? Maybe there. Where to hit it low. Where to hit it high. That’s uphill. That’s downhill. Where is the false front? Where’s the best way to access this pin, that pin?”

Smith stopped, then raised his hands.

“But nothing here,” he said, forming a grip, “And nothing there,” he said, bringing that grip to impact position.

Smith paused, then called a play.

“Target, feel, create.”

Advertisement

(Top photo: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)

Continue Reading

Culture

U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

Published

on

U.S. women's basketball Olympic roster breakdown: Experience leads hunt for another gold

The U.S. women’s basketball roster was officially announced Tuesday, and in six weeks, the 12 players will go after a record eighth consecutive Olympic gold medal. With seven players who’ve already appeared on Team USA (and an additional two who were on the three-on-three team, known as 3×3, the last time around), this is an experienced group that enters the Games as the favorite.

Experience and maturity are only heightened considering the roster skews toward players in their late 20s; the youngest players are 26 and Diana Taurasi at 42 is the oldest. Unlike previous iterations of Olympic rosters, no recent college grads were included. Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark’s exclusion from the roster has been the subject of much debate, and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston also wasn’t selected.

With 12 versatile, slightly older players, coach Cheryl Reeve has plenty of flexibility with lineups and rotations, similar to how the defensive-oriented coach operates with her Minnesota Lynx squad. She is known for getting the most out of her players, orchestrating the Lynx’s run in the 2010s to four WNBA titles in seven seasons. This will be Reeve’s first time at the helm of the national team at the Olympics. She was named the head coach for this cycle in 2021 after being an assistant for both Geno Auriemma (2016) and Dawn Staley (2020).

GO DEEPER

Team USA chair explains Olympic roster decisions, Caitlin Clark’s absence

Get to know the players who will represent Team USA in France this summer.

Collier, 27, was the 11th or 12th player on the Tokyo roster, but for this Olympics, she’s a probable starter alongside Chelsea Gray, A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. Her game has continued to evolve (which is no surprise considering Reeve is her coach with the Lynx) — she’s shooting 40 percent on 3-pointers this WNBA season. Collier showed in an Olympic qualifier game earlier this year that she potentially can become a statistical leader, after tallying 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in a tightly-contested game against Belgium.

Advertisement

Copper, 29, is playing the best basketball of her career in her first season with the Phoenix Mercury, averaging 24 points a game while shooting 39 percent from long range as a high-volume 3-point shooter. Unlike many other players on this Olympic roster who came up through the youth system, Copper’s first time in the Team USA pool was in 2021, and her game has only gone up. Her versatility is accentuated on defense, where she can guard multiple positions, both matching up with larger, more physical players and keeping step with perimeter guards.

Gray, 31, has yet to play this WNBA season after suffering a leg injury during the 2023 WNBA Finals. However, Team USA said it had been in regular communication with Gray and her medical team and feel confident she’ll be able to compete in France. Assuming that holds true, Gray will be the team’s best passer and its engine. For the Las Vegas Aces, she has been a dynamic scorer-facilitator, but if her role from the 2022 World Cup repeats, expect Gray to settle in more as a primary facilitator, especially because there’s not another pure point guard on the roster. Reeve will need a high-assist, low-risk floor general, and that’s Gray.

Advertisement

When Griner, 33, returned to the U.S. from her 10-month detainment in Russia, she said she’d only go overseas again to play for her country in the Olympics. Now, that’s happening as Griner makes her third Olympic roster. She recently returned to the floor in the WNBA after recovering from a toe fracture, but even in two games, she looks great, averaging 17.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 blocks a game (in 30 minutes of play). She started all six games in Team USA’s 2021 run in Tokyo (averaging 16.5 points and over 7 rebounds a game while shooting nearly 70 percent). At 6-foot-9, she’s the tallest player on the roster, providing Team USA an instant mismatch against any opponent.

Napheesa Collier

A young role player the last Olympic cycle, Napheesa Collier now steps into a more prominent position for Paris. (Dirk Waem / BELGA MAG / AFP via Getty Images)

Ionescu, 26, is another potential backup ballhandler who likely will split responsibilities with other guards, but her versatility as a scorer and rebounder will come in handy. Like Alyssa Thomas, Ionescu can go off for a triple-double. With her long range and quick release, she could be used off the bench to help build a lead, or in close games, she could be inserted for her reliable free-throw shooting (over 90 percent for her WNBA career).

With no true backup point guard on the roster, Loyd, 30, likely will be called into some backup ballhandling responsibilities — a task Team USA probably will take on by committee. Loyd could be considered for the final starter, a spot that remains a bit of a question mark and might be determined by game-specific matchups. She’s a tried-and-true scorer and an excellent rebounder who can get Team USA out on the break and either distribute or score. One of the many perks of this roster is the number of players who have shown they can catch fire even after a slump, and Loyd is one of those.

A member of the inaugural 3×3 squad, Plum, 29, could find herself in that starting two-guard spot, or she could be a burst of energy and instant scorer off the bench. She’s a high-volume 3-point shooter for the Aces, but she can also get downhill and finish through contact. With Gray out, the Aces have shared facilitating duties, and Plum is averaging nearly 5 assists a game. Her familiarity with Wilson, Gray and Jackie Young is an important benefit for potential playing time, and that unit could be used as a “reset” at times, especially early in pool play, when Team USA needs to get on the same page.

Breanna Stewart, F

At 29, Stewart will play in her third Olympics. In tandem with Wilson, Stewart provides versatility and steadiness on both ends of the floor. Her 3-point shooting has been down this WNBA season, but Stewart is a three-level scorer with a knack for making defensive plays. Expect Stewart and Wilson to start regardless of the matchup as Reeve uses them as centerpieces and builds out from there.

Diana Taurasi, G

This will be Taurasi’s sixth Olympics. Her first came in 2004 in Athens, where at 22 she was the youngest player on the team. Her eldest teammate that year? Then-34-year-old Dawn Staley, who — 16 years later — would coach Taurasi at the Tokyo Olympics. Taurasi’s deft passing and sharp shooting will be helpful, but her experience is irreplaceable compared to any other player in the Team USA pool. “We knew Diana’s basketball ability would be clutch for us in so many moments, but we also knew that her leadership was something this team didn’t have,” U.S. women’s national team committee chair Jen Rizzotti said.

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi, a staple of the U.S. national team for two decades, will go for her sixth Olympic gold medal. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Alyssa Thomas, F

Known as “The Engine” in the WNBA, Thomas, 32, is a triple-double threat every night in the league. She’s not the tallest on any court, but she might be the strongest 6-2 player in the league. The common storyline for commentators about the 10-year vet is that Thomas has two torn labrums (cartilage in her shoulders) so she uses an unconventional shooting form. However, that hasn’t stopped Thomas from being so effective that Reeve actually asked her to return to the Team USA player pool before the 2022 World Cup after Thomas spent several years on the outside looking in.

A’ja Wilson, F

The two-time WNBA MVP has been successful in Olympic and international play. As an Olympic rookie in Tokyo, Wilson was a standout, averaging over 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while playing for Staley, her former coach at South Carolina.  She’ll again have a comfort level in France from being surrounded by three of her Aces teammates. She also has added a 3-point shot to her offensive arsenal. Wilson — and Stewart — are the new faces of Team USA in a changing-of-the-guard era, a new challenge for both. Wilson, 27, has handled that same responsibility on and off the court for the Aces, and she appears primed for the occasion.

Jackie Young, G

Young, 26, was a member of the Tokyo 3×3 squad. She was called into preparation at the last minute after initial 3×3 team member Katie Lou Samuelson tested positive for COVID-19 before the team’s departure. Young has been one of the most improved players through the most recent Olympic cycle, becoming a more prolific scorer and passer. She’s a tough perimeter defender and reliable scorer who, like the other guards on this roster, could find herself filling Gray’s shoes when she’s not on the floor.

Advertisement

(Photo of Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum, A’Ja Wilson and Sabrina Ionescu celebrating their gold-medal win at the 2022 FIBA World Cup: Kelly Defina / Getty Images)

Continue Reading

Culture

The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

Published

on

The two Pinehursts have not always seen eye to eye

PINEHURST, N.C. — It can trick you, this place. It’s all so charming and whimsical, Mayberry turned golf mecca in the sandhills of North Carolina.

You stroll along the brick walking paths through the village, passing the two-story brick buildings filled with cute shops and quaint pubs. More than a million people travel here each year to this Disney World for idyllic golf-themed getaways.

It can trick you into thinking you stumbled onto a golf oasis. Trick you into forgetting this place is a juggernaut, a resort, a full-on corporation with luxury hotels and cottages and 10 courses designed by renowned golf architects. Yes, it may have started with a pharmacy chain owner offering tuberculosis patients a chance to recover in a haven designed by the same man who designed Central Park. But the reasons a place begins are very rarely the same reasons that keep a destination thriving.

Now, Pinehurst Resort calls itself the cradle of American golf. The USGA announced it as the first of its new “anchor sites,” which will host U.S. Opens every 5-6 years for the next 30 years, beginning this week.

Pinehurst brought back the World Golf Hall of Fame. Its relationship with the town is strong and it’s a bucket-list destination for generations of recreational golfers. It is, for the foreseeable future, a central focal point marrying the casual and professional golf worlds.

Advertisement

But it wasn’t that long ago this place was climbing out of $70 million in debt, that it was at war with the people of this town and embroiled in countless lawsuits focusing on issues ranging from predatory management strategies to members feeling cheated.

And it wasn’t so long ago that a private detective who called himself “the Fat Man” had a poster of Pinehurst’s owner on a chair in front of his desk with a simple mission: “I just want this guy nailed to the wall.”


There’s a mantra Robert H. Dedman Jr. repeats at will: “Always Pinehurst, but always better.”

GO DEEPER

From the shadow of the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, a game-changer emerges

Advertisement

But progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. What began as a company town turned into something else when James W. Tufts hired Donald Ross as golf pro and formed Pinehurst No. 1 before completing his masterpiece — Pinehurst No. 2 — in 1907. Ross finished his fourth Pinehurst course before 1920 and the resort had become a premier golf destination with three inns. The town and the resort were so intertwined that resort employees were paid during the Depression in scrip redeemable only at Tufts-owned businesses. And it started its entry into pro golf circles, hosting the 1936 PGA Championship and 1951 Ryder Cup.

But in 1971, the Tufts family sold Pinehurst to Diamondhead Corporation, a real estate project owned by Malcom McLean that took a place rooted in tradition and lined the courses with condos and attempted to modernize the look of Ross’ design. Sacrilege. The prestige of the resort declined, as did its quality, and it compiled $70 million in debt by the time Diamondhead had to hand Pinehurst over to a consortium of eight banks in 1982.


Spectators are turning out in droves to watch Tiger Woods and the rest of the U.S. Open field at Pinehurst this week. (Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

In came the savior, a moniker that became a point of contention for many.

Robert H. Dedman Sr. was the founder of ClubCorp, a Dallas-based corporation that made a killing buying distressed private golf and country clubs and rebuilding them. They eventually owned more than 200 properties around the world, and Dedman Sr. was a billionaire often named by Golf Digest as one of the most important people in golf. He was a charming, self-made man from Arkansas who successfully branded himself as something between a capitalist and a romantic.

“The first time I stood in front of the clubhouse and looked out on all those ribbons of fairway, I got tears in my eyes,” Dedman Sr. told Sports Illustrated in 1999. “I had always venerated Pinehurst for its place in the history of golf, and when I finally saw it I knew instantly that we would take this fallen angel and make it not as good as it was, but better than it had ever been.”

Advertisement

Always Pinehurst, but always better. But better usually comes with costs. Capitalism is a game of winners and losers, and progress often leaves others behind.

Pinehurst was the crown jewel of ClubCorp’s empire, and Dedman Sr. made good on those dreams by restoring tradition and returning Pinehurst to its rightful place in the sport. In fact, he elevated it.

Fifteen years and $100 million after buying it, the 1999 U.S. Open came to Pinehurst. Dedman Sr. died in 2002, but Dedman Jr. (known as Bob) was running much of the company by the 1990s. It hosted the U.S. Open again in 2005. The Dedmans sold ClubCorp in 2006 but kept Pinehurst as their baby, and after a successful restoration it made history by holding the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in consecutive weeks in 2014. The men’s tournament went 10 years without returning, but with its new anchor site designation Pinehurst has successfully cemented its place at the forefront of American golf.

That build, though, came with pushback. Starting in 1991 and carrying on through 2000, as much as 55 percent (more than 3,000) of Pinehurst members contributed to legal funds for a lawsuit claiming the club brought in too many outsiders, denied them agreed upon access to tee times and improperly raised membership fees.

In 1990, ClubCorp sold its stake in nearby Pinewild Country Club to Japanese cookie maker Tohato Inc. with a deal for Tohato to pay ClubCorp to manage it. By 1996, Tohato sued ClubCorp because it felt hoodwinked, claiming the latter used Pinewild as inexpensive overflow courses for guests paying to stay next door at Pinehurst Resort. Tohato officials also claimed ClubCorp tried to purposely mismanage the property to force Tohato to want out and sell back to Pinehurst at a fraction of the original cost.

Advertisement

Things turned dramatic when Tohato hired the celebrity private detective William Graham to help with the case. Graham was an eccentric who appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “20/20” and was in talks with studios to produce a movie about his life. Graham pursued ClubCorp so hard they ultimately sued him for libel. And in the meantime Graham caused the Dedmans constant headaches.

In 1997, Graham sent out faxes across the country detailing 33 alleged “civil and criminal violations” against ClubCorp. He was quoted in South Carolina’s The State newspaper calling Dedman Sr. and his company, “a bunch of backstabbing, corkscrewing, double-dealing, lying, cheating, stealing (SOBs).”

All of this ClubCorp of course used in its libel case, which was folded into a seven-figure settlement paid by Tohato to ClubCorp. But those faxes led to major outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times investigating and publishing large pieces painting ClubCorp in an unflattering light. In the two years before the U.S. Open, at least seven of the company’s 70 country clubs were involved in lawsuits against ClubCorp filed by either members homeowners or a co-owner, per the New York Times. (ClubCorp eventually pulled out of its management arrangement at Pinewild, telling members in a letter it had “been placed in a position that makes it impossible to do our job.”)

So when Pinehurst hosted the 1999 U.S. Open — what was supposed to be Dedman Sr.’s crowning achievement — he instead sat with Sports Illustrated for a profile on how such a beloved figure was suddenly disliked by so many around the club.

“Just because we have a great reputation, people think that if they make a few grandiose statements we’ll cave in and pay their blackmail,” Dedman Sr. told SI. “We can’t afford to do that. We have had people go to obnoxious lengths to try to get a settlement. We have zero tolerance for that behavior. Our philosophy, to quote one of our former Presidents, is millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.”

Advertisement

When Pinehurst hosted the 1994 U.S. Senior Open the No. 2 course barely resembled Donald Ross’ original design. It’s been since restored. (Gary Newkirk / Allsport via Getty Images)

But the public relations issues for Pinehurst really took over when the battles started with the townspeople. In 1995, a Pinehurst resident named Edmund Dietrich wrote a letter to The Pilot, the local paper in Southern Pines, saying tips given to resort employees were being withheld. Dietrich was sued for libel, though ClubCorp later dropped it. Then, ClubCorp reportedly threatened local businesses for using Pinehurst in their names, citing trademark infringement. It claimed Pinehurst was only the name of the resort and facilities, and that the town was the “Village of Pinehurst.”

ClubCorp lawyer Stephen Trattner famously said: “I don’t believe there is a Pinehurst, N.C. You may call it that, and the mail may get there that way, (but) you don’t live in Pinehurst. You live in the Village of Pinehurst.”

Dedman Sr. had created an environment in which members and guests were treated like royalty, with staff remembering their favorite cocktails and making sure to use their name at least four times a trip, but the people who lived in the town — a town founded to help people get healthy — felt alienated. Pinehurst Business Guild became the Village of Pinehurst Business Guild. Companies like Pinehurst Interiors had to change their name to Village Design Group, which still stands today.

If Dedman Sr. was the charming personality who could light up a room, Bob Jr. was the hard-nosed, forward-thinking CEO who, his father admitted, was a more organized executive. But if at the time Dedman Jr. was labeled as a bottom line executive pushing for growth, he’s also been the one overseeing its public rehabilitation.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

U.S. Open Big Board: After Scottie Scheffler, how does the field stack up at Pinehurst?

Advertisement

Another funny thing about progress is success tends to mend most wounds. Pinehurst has become more and more of a powerhouse in the world of golf, bringing millions and millions of tourism dollars to the area each year. Dedman Jr. founded a local Boys & Girls Club chapter in Pinehurst in 1999 and now receives local hospitality awards. While the mayor back in 1999 was calling his father arrogant and a bully, former Pinehurst mayor Nancy Roy Fiorillo (2011-2019) raved about all the good Dedman Jr. does and how great Pinehurst Resort is for the town.

“Bob Dedman Jr. is Doing All the Good He Can” was the headline of a story in The Pilot last week. Similar pieces have been written by Global Golf Post and PineStraw Magazine. Maybe some of it is from the ClubCorp sale — it’s far easier to be magnanimous proprietors when you’re running one iconic club and not a conglomerate fighting for every little margin.

What’s clear is Pinehurst is now thriving. More than 12 million Americans have traveled to play golf each of the past two years, up about 20 percent over the historical average, according to the National Golf Foundation. Pinehurst attracts a large chunk of that.

Every resort is trying catch up to it, a place that can boast both incredible history with everyone from Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods having played here, mixed with constant innovation and new courses. The restoration of No. 2 by the architect team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw took the already famous course to new heights by removing rough and leaving tough, sandy areas off the fairways. Gil Hanse’s redesign of No. 4 has boosted it in significance. All of the top designers of past and present have contributed to one course or another.

And the resort keeps pushing itself off the course, turning an abandoned steam plant into a brewery and refurbishing the clubhouse with lush new digs for members. They expanded the Deuce Grill, restored one inn and renovated another. All of that on top of the USGA’s new Golf House Pinehurst and the World Golf Hall of Fame, which returned from St. Augustine, Fla.

Advertisement

The Dedmans tried to ensure that it was always about Pinehurst but always making it better, and they’ve continued to push and push to a point it seems unstoppable going forward. And now, the conversation of the week is entirely about the course and how great it will be to watch. Not the issues of the past.

They couldn’t pin the Dedmans to the wall.

(Top photo: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour via Getty Images)

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Trending